Can Moths Change Colors? Exploring Adaptations

Many people are fascinated by the diverse world of moths and their intriguing abilities. One such ability is the potential for some moth species to change colors. This article will explore the research and findings regarding moths’ color-changing tendencies and how they reflect their environment.

Color changes observed in moths are not immediate or voluntary, but rather a result of genetic adaptations driven by environmental pressures, and in some cases, innate abilities of the larvae.

This article will discuss the evidence linking color changes in moths to the processes of the Industrial Revolution and how mutations in genes control pigment production.

By reading this article, you will gain insights into the factors behind moths’ fascinating color changes and their implications for both the moths themselves and our broader understanding of adaptation in the animal kingdom.

Moths and Coloration

Understanding Moth Anatomy

Moths, like butterflies, have scales on their wings which contribute to their coloration. The development and arrangement of these scales influence the appearance of moths.

As wing-scale development progresses, various colors begin to emerge, similar to a paint-by-numbers process.

In moths, yellow, white, and red scales develop first, followed by black scales later on in the process. However, Cortex, a gene involved in cell growth, also plays a role in the formation of these colors. (Science News Explores)

Types of Pigmentation

In some cases, the color change in moths is caused by a mutation in a gene responsible for pigment production. This mutation can result in moths producing less pigment, leading to a lighter color.

During the Industrial Revolution, trees covered in soot provided a selective advantage for the dark-colored peppered moths, which were able to blend in better than their lighter-colored counterparts.

This resulted in the dark-colored moths having a higher survival rate and passing their dark color genes onto their offspring. (Ask A Biologist)

Peppered moths, in particular, are well-known for their color-changing ability. These moths are usually white with black speckles across their wings, giving them their name. They serve as an excellent example of evolution by natural selection and have been referred to as “Darwin’s moths.” (Butterfly Conservation)

Mechanisms of Color Change

Environmental Influences

One of the mechanisms behind the color change in moths is environmental influence. Environmental factors such as pollution and industrial activity have been known to affect moth coloration.

Other environmental factors such as temperature and humidity can also affect the coloration of moths. For example, some species of moths change color in response to seasonal changes, becoming darker in the winter months to absorb more heat.

Genetic Factors

Genetic factors also play a significant role in moth color change. Genetic mutations can result in the development of different color pigments in moths, leading to variations in their appearance.

A study led by a team of researchers at the University of Liverpool identified a specific genetic mutation that resulted in the color change of moths during the Industrial Revolution. The mutation affects the “melanism” (dark color pigmentation) of moths.

Moreover, the timing of wing-scale development is influenced by genetic factors, as mentioned in the Science News Explores article.

Moth species, such as butterflies, exhibit color changes in their wing scales, with yellow, white, and red scales developing first, followed by black scales. These color variations are determined by genes involved in cell growth and development.

Adaptive Significance

The ability of moths to change colors has shown considerable adaptive significance over time, allowing these creatures to be efficient survivors in their environments.

This section delves into sub-topics to comprehensively discuss the impact of color change in moths.

Camouflage and Cryptic Coloration

Many moth species utilize camouflage and cryptic coloration as a means of evading predators.

As mentioned before industrial melanism illustrates the moth’s adaptation to its environment through color change for better camouflage.

Another example is the twig-mimicking caterpillars of the peppered moth. Researchers found that these caterpillars are capable of slow color change to better blend with their surroundings without requiring direct stimulus, thanks to a sensory input mechanism that adaptively triggers the camouflage process.

Warning Signals and Mimicry

Color change in moths can also serve as warning signals to predators. Bright, contrasting colors and patterns in some moth species indicate their unpalatability or the presence of toxins, discouraging predators from attempting to consume them.

Mimicry is another adaptive strategy employed by moths to deter predation. Certain moth species develop similar colorations and patterns to those of more dangerous or unpalatable species so as to deceive potential predators.

For instance, their wing-scale development is affected by the timing, leading to different colors like yellow, white, and red appearing before the black scales, resulting in a paint-by-numbers effect.

Research and Observations

Prominent Studies

One significant study on peppered moths revealed their color change in sync with the Industrial Revolution.

The research identified a gene responsible for the moths turning black and demonstrated that the change coincided with Britain’s increased use of coal (Smithsonian). Two papers published in the journal Nature documented the findings.

In another study by Amy Eacock et al., the sensory input mechanism for slow color change in twig-mimicking caterpillars of the peppered moth was examined.

The findings indicated that the camouflage process does not require direct visual input from the caterpillars to work.

Moth Species Exhibiting Color Change

Peppered moths (Biston betularia) are a classic example of adaptive color change in response to environmental factors.

Researchers observed that moths tend to be restless when colors conflict with their environment. This evidence supports the idea that industrial melanism in peppered moths is more than a simple change from light to dark colors (Scientific American).

Another study found 87 genetic differences between the black and light-colored forms of the peppered moth. These changes included single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) and additions or deletions of DNA bases (Science News Explores).


In summary, moths are capable of undergoing color changes in response to environmental factors. For example, the peppered moths have adapted their wing color due to industrial pollution, which has been revealed by their genetic changes.

However, this color change was not a voluntary action but an evolutionary adaptation resulting from natural selection.

Another example comes from the adaptive color change and background choice behavior observed in peppered moth caterpillars.

These caterpillars use extraocular photoreception to adjust their color and pattern, allowing them to camouflage better with their surroundings. This adaptive color change helps increase their chances of survival against predators.

Overall, the ability of moths to change colors is an essential aspect of their survival strategy.

However, it is essential to note that color changes observed in moths are not immediate or voluntary, but rather a result of genetic adaptations driven by environmental pressures, and in some cases, innate abilities of the larvae.

As more research continues to be conducted, our understanding of the various mechanisms behind these fascinating color changes in moths will only continue to grow.

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